Parmigianino - Biography and Legacy
Italian Painter, Draughtsman, and Printmaker
Biography of Parmigianino
Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola was born in Parma somewhere towards the beginning of 1503. It was only retrospectively, once he had gained his substantial reputation during the middle-period of the Italian Renaissance in fact, did he become known as Parmigianino - "little one of Parma". He was born the fourth child to Donatella Abbati and the painter Filippo Mazzola. Before his second birthday, his father succumbed to the plague and died, aged 45, leaving the young Parmigianino to be raised by his mother and his two uncles, Pier and Michele Ilario, themselves artisanal painters. Indeed, painting was the family business and Filippo had been well-known in his provincial sphere. Sadly, so far as the family business was concerned, Filippo's brothers' abilities were considered somewhat modest by comparison.
From an artistic point of view, the city of Parma was not well placed during the early part of the 16th Century. The city was well known for its Romanesque architecture and design but Parma was unable to boast any painters of note during the years of the High Renaissance. Indeed, in cases where fresco-work was required, painters were brought in from elsewhere. As well as the plague, the wars between Papal, German-Imperial, and French forces unsettled northern Italy at this time too. Battle-zones moved constantly through the area, shifting and re-shifting centers of power, and displacing families like Parmigianino's. Isolated by events beyond his control, in an artless town far removed from Renaissance centres like Florence and Rome, Parmigianino was torn between becoming aware of his own audacious talent, and striving to match the seemingly insurmountable achievements of figures like Raphael and Michelangelo. It seems reasonable to surmise that Parmigianino's role in the development of the Mannerist style - pushing High-Renaissance ideals of balanced form and mathematical realism towards a less composed, more vivid style - owed something at least to his childhood ambivalence towards early-16th-century Italian culture.
According to Giorgio Vasari, the famous chronicler of Renaissance painters' lives, the young and restless Parmigianino furtively produced sketches during his first writing lessons. His teacher and his uncles recognised that the boy had become heir to his father's talent and so trained him in drawing. Reports vary, but somewhere between the ages of 14 and 16 he produced his earliest extant painting, Baptism of Christ (c.1519). The painting showed details that would become characteristic of his mature work: a tumbling Etruscan landscape, a glowing treatment of skin lit from unnatural sources and figures of accentuated grace and elegance. The painting was crude and amateurish, and almost certainly includes contributions from one or both of his uncles, but it also bears witness to the early motions of a mind and hand that would be crucial in defining the later stages of Renaissance art and the Mannerist school beyond.
On the strength of his earliest works, and due in part to the efforts of his uncles, Parmigianino was contracted to complete the frescoes inside Parma's church of San Giovanni Evangelista, working alongside two painters who had settled in the city. One, Anselmi, had arrived in Parma from Siena a few years earlier, and would at the time have been the most talented painter the boy had ever known. It's likely that Anselmi would have been the defining influence on Parmigianino were it not for the arrival, around 1520, of the second painter: Antonio Allegri, better known as Correggio. The young boy experienced something like trauma when he saw Correggio's completed cupola at San Giovanni Evangelista. If we are to believe Parmigianino biographer and critic Cecil Gould, "an indefinable mixture of admiration, envy, and resentment of Correggio's greatness was to be perhaps the chief emotion of Parmigianino's life".
Despite learning by the master's side (as they painted the walls of the San Giovanni) Parmigianino never became formally apprenticed to Correggio. In fact, there is no evidence that he ever underwent any formal apprenticeship in the workshop of an established artist or draftsman. It appears rather that Parmigianino was largely self-taught, taking sketches after Correggio's work, from observing him paint, and by learning compositional techniques from drawings and chiaroscuro-copies of works by Michelangelo that Correggio had made while on visits to Florence and Rome. Parmigianino's abilities were raw, but he managed nevertheless to produce significant works including Bardi Altarpiece (c.1521).
Correggio's frescoes at San Giovanni earned him a flurry of commissions in the area, and so he took up residence in Parma. Parmigianino's work was however interrupted in the early 1520s when ongoing conflicts between the Empire and the Church convinced his uncles to depart for the town of Viadana. Parmigianino's time in this even more remote town appears to have been relatively productive. This may be down to the fact that he was joined in Viadana by Girolamo Bedoli, a gifted painter from his uncles' studios who was betrothed to Parmigianino's cousin.
Returning to Parma sometime during 1523-4, Parmigianino turned his thoughts towards Rome, perhaps hoping to move out from under Correggio's shadow. However, shortly before leaving Parma, he produced many important works, three of which he would take with him to Rome in the hope of announcing himself to potential patrons. One of these was the famous Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (c.1524).
Aged just 21, Parmigianino arrived in Rome with his distorted self-portrait, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror in 1524, just as the Renaissance cusped into what is now known as its "post-peak" phase. It is possible, judging by certain pictorial and compositional elements which Parmigianino began to explore, that he arrived in Rome via Florence where he briefly met Michelangelo. However, the dominant problem for all aspirational painters was how to follow the masters of the High Renaissance who seemed to have perfected compositional form; to have truly captured earthly beauty; and to have expressed religious visions so consummately. Though his painting style had become more finished, the question of how best to apply his notable talents still brought Parmigianino considerable inner turmoil.
The paintings he brought with him to the city were warmly received by the new Pope Clement VII. He gifted one of these, a Madonna, to the Pope's young nephew, Ippolito de' Medici, who became henceforward the most notable patron of Parmigianino's works. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, meanwhile, passed into the hands of the poet Pietro Aretino, and then on to Alessandro Vittoria, a Venetian sculptor, who duly displayed it as a popular curiosity.
On the strength of these paintings, most biographers agree (Gould, for one, accepts Vasari's account) that Parmigianino was asked by Clement to paint the Hall of the Popes at the Vatican. The commission, however, never materialised, and Parmigianino joined the ranks of talented but frustrated "post-peak" painters. Parmigianino was left to trade techniques and ideas, and to paint minor loggias and frescoes, with the likes of Rosso Fiorientini, and Michelangelo's wayward protégé, Sebastiano del Piombo (who, incidentally, shared Parmigianino's love and talent for playing the lute).
In 1527, Imperial forces of Charles V sacked Rome, raiding houses, murdering and raping civilians, and claiming the city for the Holy Roman Empire. Parmigianino, rapturously absorbed in painting his Madonna and Child with the Baptist and St Jerome (c.1527), was oblivious to the uproar. German troops stormed his residence and found him in his studio. Mythology tells it that the troops froze, stunned by the angelic beauty of the young painter's face, the innocent intensity of his concentration, and the supernatural light of the painting itself. They could not bring themselves to harm either the artist or his work, and instead kept him in their employ for some months, producing pictures and portraits. Eventually, Parmigianino would escape Rome with the help of his uncle. Their plan was to make once more for Parma, but the painter found a temporary home in Bologna instead.
After very possibly making another visit to Florence - and being introduced there to the almost surrealist experiments of the painter Pontormo, an important influence on his later work - Parmigianino settled in Bologna in 1527. Other than a notable St Cecilia by Raphael and Noli me Tangere, a masterpiece by Correggio (who was becoming an inescapable presence in Parmigianino's life), 1520s Bologna was home to precious little by way of great paintings. Parmigianino found that he was very much the star-turn, and his time there was perhaps his most productive and most happy. He made great strides in the art of graphics, producing etchings and chiaroscuros of a quality far beyond what had been done in the province before. He was commissioned to paint the altarpiece for the church of San Petronio, produced a startling self-portrait, and made one of his greatest paintings, The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine (undated, but certainly from the Bologna period).
Having already witnessed the sack of Rome, fate had it that Parmigianino was to be present at another great historical moment. In 1530, whilst the painter was still resident in Bologna, Charles V was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Clement VII in the city. This marked the final time that an Emperor would be crowned by a Pope. Charles is remembered as the first ruler whose domain was described as "the empire on which the sun never sets". Parmigianino was present at the banquet and based on his sighting of the new Emperor, Parmigianino painted an unorthodox and fascinating portrait. Despite its strange energy and flashing brushstrokes, it pleased Charles very much. Unfortunately for the painter, this interaction would go down in posterity as yet another missed opportunity. Reportedly, on the ill-advice of a friend, Parmigianino took the portrait back, saying it was unfinished. He never re-presented it to Charles. The payment and subsequent commissions which would surely have otherwise followed were unforthcoming.
Later Years and Death
Upon returning to Parma in 1531, Parmigianino stayed briefly in his family home with his uncle Pier. He and Pier no longer saw eye-to-eye however and his daughter and her husband, the painter Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli, were now the focus of his patronage and hospitality. Soon thereafter Parmigianino took up a solitary and separated residence for the final phase of his short life.
Though Correggio himself had moved on by this point (and there are suggestions that Parmigianino deliberately returned only after the master-painter had left), Parma was still colored by his works, his influence and his reputation: the town still abuzz with the beginnings of Correggio's great legacy. It is likely this had a profoundly negative effect on Parmigianino, and he felt himself once more shrouded in his old rival's shadow. However, Parmigianino still received a commission to paint a half-dome at Parma's Santa Maria Steccata. As Gould tells us, Parmigianino "wanted to challenge Correggio [with the commission] and then found, when he tried, that he could not".
For his fresco designs for the Santa Maria's Choir Vault, Parmigianino had to take into account the huge coffers that dominate the barrel vaults. His design (some preliminary sketches for which are held at the British Museum in London) featured vase-bearing maidens standing between the coffers with the remaining space being filled with swags, shells, crabs, flowers and birds. Parmigianino convinced the specialists who made the rosettes from his designs, to allow him to gild the flowers in gold-leaf himself. He obsessively performed the task alone, over and over again, believing he was turning the wood into gold. Vasari had made the claim that alchemical obsessions had driven Parmigianino to a kind of distraction, and in support of that argument, work on the fresco was so slow that Parmigianino was forced to sign a new contract with the church in 1535. A further three years on still, the church agreed another extension but finally ran out of patience in December 1539 when they had Parmigianino arrested. The artist was released on bail but, before he fled to Casalmaggiore (where he died in the following year), he found time, in a fit of pique, to storm the church and vandalize part of his very own fresco.
The Steccata church was consecrated and declared finished in the same year (1539). Although Parmigianino's work was incomplete, the remaining swags and crabs and lobsters and frogs of the vault were shockingly vibrant and totally original. However, his contributions were not seen as "masterful" but rather bewildering to the contemporary churchgoers who saw them. The unfinished vault still stands however as a monument to a brilliantly gifted but essentially wandering "post-peak" Renaissance mind.
As an interesting endnote to the Steccata saga, Parmigianino, concerned that the work be completed in his absence as per his designs, wrote back to Parma on the 4th of April 1540, addressing Giulio Romano, who was tipped to lead the completion of the half-dome. It is the only surviving personal message in Parmigianino's handwriting, and shows a stubborn, unyielding mind, worried about his money and his reputation. It concludes with a strange, ambivalent statement, leaving an image of a guarded and neurotic man: "Please deign to write to me and give me advice on this matter as I know not what to say except that I think you love me as much as I love you..."
In the midst of the Steccata project, Elena Baiardi commissioned Parmigianino to paint the altarpiece for her husband's (Francesco Tagliaferri) funerary chapel. The result was arguably his most famous work, the Madonna of the Long Neck (c.1535-1540). In this piece his propensity to elongate and exaggerate the human form comes across with a poise and an expressive control that is possibly unrivalled elsewhere in his work. Whilst at Casalmaggiore, however, Parmigianino summoned the effort and self-control to gain one final commission, and through it he produced a masterpiece of near equal standing: Madonna and Child with Saint Stephen, the Baptist, and a Donor (c.1540) (otherwise known as The Dresden Altarpiece). Painted with the same care and refinement as Madonna of the Long Neck this piece still shows the eccentricities that make Parmigianino such an arresting painter. There are many who believe indeed that The Dresden Altarpiece competes with Madonna of the Long Neck as his finest work.
Parmigianino died on August 24, in the year 1540. As was his wish, he was buried naked with a cypress cross at his breast. He was 37 years old, equalling Raphael in the untimeliness of his death. Tradition has it that Parmigianino was killed by lung complications caused by the fumes from his alchemical experiments. In this case his explorations in transmutation finally did lead to a form of transcendence. He is buried at 'La Fontana', Motta San Fermo, just outside Casalmaggiore.
The Legacy of Parmigianino
In his paintings, Parmigianino's figures are often their own light-source, much as he himself was essentially self-taught, never formally apprenticed. He is a strange and singular figure whose influence stretches far. There was likely some cross-pollination with Correggio, but more importantly his elongated Madonnas and saints were the first truly Mannerist figures, and very directly influenced El Greco, Tintoretto, Benvienuto Cellini, and others from the Mannerist school. The young painter's willingness to begin deconstructing the formal perfection of his early-Renaissance predecessors was a subtle but seismic shift in the history of art, and paved the way for further innovations in the years following the High Renaissance. Parmigianino is also attributed with being amongst the very first Italian etchers. His work influenced artists such as Andrea Schiavone, who learned to etch directly from Parmigianino's prints, and Battista Franco, who would go further in their experiments with etching techniques. Though his unorthodoxy and his strange passions perhaps cost him in terms of patronage and reputation during his own lifetime, his legacy is that of an innovator, a true original whose importance endures right up to the contemporary moment.